OUR OPINION: Students should benefit from Common Core

Mississippi students, while they’ve made some improvements in recent years, still consistently score near the bottom of national rankings in academic performance.

U.S. students, meanwhile, score well below many of their peers in the industrialized world.

Clearly, something has to change.

The federal No Child Left Behind legislation passed in 2001 ushered in an unprecedented era of school assessment and accountability. While that legislation appropriately forced more attention on how all groups of students perform, its principal flaw was in focusing almost entirely on test results. Teaching to the test became the norm.

Learning what’s expected to be learned in order to pass a multiple-choice test is not necessarily a bad thing. Students who do well on tests have at least retained information long enough to repeat it on a test. But long-term retention, relevance and context are more of what real learning should look like.

These are at the heart of the Common Core state standards, which Mississippi and most other states have adopted and which are explained in today’s latest installment of the Daily Journal’s ongoing “State of Our Schools” series.

The standards – which are just that, not a curriculum – require more than regurgitation of memorized facts. Students must demonstrate that they understand and can apply concepts. This requires more of teachers, but it also frees them to do more than drill for the test. It’s harder for students, but that’s basically the point: higher expectations and bigger payoffs in learning gains.

If NCLB focused on test results – on how student performance is assessed – Common Core is more about how material is taught and how students learn that material best.

Common Core opponents raise some legitimate questions, but the crux of the opposition is a fear of federal intrusion that is overblown. No one in the federal government is dictating curriculum to Mississippi teachers and administrators. Mississippi is free to determine what works best for its students in meeting the standards.

Yes, Common Core is a national set of standards, developed by a consortium of governors and state education leaders. But Mississippi needs that benchmark to compare itself to the nation.

Under No Child Left Behind, every state was free to adopt its own standards. The incentive was to set those relatively low, since so much was riding on the outcome.

Common Core aims to bring higher standards, increased rigor and relevance to education. For a while, fewer schools and districts will make the top ranks.

But if it succeeds, Mississippi will see a different result in the opposite direction toward improved student achievement. Common Core has more than enough going for it to move forward with full implementation.